Hong Kong’s “Will Xi or won’t Xi” visit guessing game is over, but another one has begun

Return to sender.
Return to sender.
Image: Jimmy Lam Kin Hang
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Every five years since the 1997 handover, China’s president has come to Hong Kong to mark the anniversary and preside over the swearing-in of the city’s leader for a new term. This year, it’s Chinese president Xi Jinping’s turn, for what will be his first visit as leader to the former British colony—and one that comes after the major protests led by young people in 2014 calling for democracy.

As officials kept a strict lid on details in recent weeks, journalists embarked on a “guessing” game of sorts, calling up hotels (link in Chinese) frequented by the Communist Party leadership for clues that the visit was on—not that that was ever really in doubt. The visit has now been officially confirmed by China, and also by the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong will now embark on a different guessing game: how successful local activists will be at performing acts of protest that could be embarrassing for Xi.

Protesters made their first move after the confirmation early Monday, shrouding in black cloth the Golden Bauhinia statue gifted by Beijing to mark the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Leaders of the group included Joshua Wong, one of the founders of the new political party Demosisto, and fellow pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi.

“It’s not the time for celebration, it’s time for demonstration,” said Wong.

The reluctance to confirm the exact dates for the visit was likely aimed at curtailing protests like these, and to stop activists from voicing deepening worries about the erosion of civil liberties in the city. It’s not clear from the past that that’s a very effective strategy. In 2012, then president Hu Jintao’s three-day visit was only confirmed on June 24, yet hundreds of thousands still turned out for the July 1 demonstration that is just as much a part of the city’s commemorations as the annual fireworks.

Tensions in Hong Kong were high ahead of that visit too, after people had taken to the streets over the death of an elderly and disabled labor activist on the mainland. And like Hu, Xi will come to city feeling the city’s deep discontent over a litany of very familiar problems. Here’s how the New York Times described the mood in 2012:

Fifteen years after the handover, Hong Kong faces a wide set of challenges, analysts say: property prices have soared to their highest levels since 1997; the gap between rich and poor, already the greatest in Asia, is at its highest level in four decades; air pollution continues to worsen; and no clear path has been presented to usher in a system to allow the public to directly elect leaders.

This year, however, parts of the park where the July 1 marchers usually gather before setting forth has been made off limits to them. And some 9,000 police officers—a third of the police force—are expected to fan across the city, keeping an eye out for imagery that activists will try to display in prominent places.

It’s not an easy task for the police: during the three-day visit, which could include the expected arrival of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, activists only really need a half-hour slot like they had on Monday morning to make a statement.

Read Quartz’s complete series on the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.